Steampunk inspiration and resources

How to Punk your Steam

How to Punk Your Steam: Make it Yourself

Steampunk and the Maker Movement go hand in hand. If you aren’t familiar with the latter, here is an excerpt from a USA Today article in 2014:

Across the country, “makerspaces” are popping up to satisfy demand for affordable access to industrial tools and shared work spaces. These massive fabrication facilities are like a cross between a business incubator and a manufacturing plant, with sprinklings of academia and community spirit thrown in for good measure… The secret appeal of these places is not simply the low-cost access to powerful tools and studio spaces, but also the community of entrepreneurs, marketers, hired hands and general go-getters who coexist under the same roof. Don’t know how to weld? Take a class, learn the basics, build a product and market it — all in the same building. (Read more)

People with different skillsets and abilities are coming together to celebrate the satisfaction and process of making something with your own two hands; and these creations often carry the Steampunk aesthetic. The industrial arts of today and the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s are a match made in heaven!

Found on

Found on

On so many fronts, Steampunk is a maker-led movement. Not just in the world of arts; prop-makers, costumers, and Indie writers, to name a few, are taking the bull by the horns and doing what they love. You only have to look as far as the Maker Faires that occur all over the country, or the specifically retro-futuristic event, The Steampunk and Maker Fair. So, rather than trying to devote just a single post in the How to Punk Your Steam series to this fantastic DIY movement, I will be spending the entire month of February bringing you resources to help you make your own dreams a reality in whatever medium you love.

If you have pictures or info about anything you have made yourself that you want to share please don’t hesitate to send an email to I would love to post a gallery of creations by readers at the end of the month!

Have a whimsical day

How to Punk Your Steam Part 10.3: Make it Travel Through Time (Paradoxes and Pitfalls)

Alright, now that we got all of that boring science and “reality” out of the, it is time to move onto the fun parts of time travel. But, before we can explore the repercussions of time travel, we have to take a look at our understanding of time itself. Namely, is there a single timeline or infinite possibilities? (This is of course assuming that time is linear at all, but that is a much bigger discussion for another… time.)

There Can Be Only One!

So, let’s say there is just one timeline. One classic example of the danger here is called The Grandfather Paradox. A time traveler goes back in time and accidentally kills his own ancestor, thus ending the family line. He can’t return to his present, because he will no longer exist. The only way for him to ensure that the family line continues is to impregnate his grandmother, thus becoming his own grandfather. Personally, I find this particular thought experiment a bit silly considering that we know how DNA and the transference of genetic material works. If the time traveler did in fact kill his grandfather, impregnating his grandmother would not result in an exact copy of himself two generations later. Conversely, if killing his grandfather were to cause him to never be born, then he would cease to exist the same moment that his grandfather’s heart stopped beating, and wouldn’t have time to woo his nana (ewww). If he did not immediately blink out of existence, I suppose that grandpappy might have had some of his little swimmers on ice, but that would really be the only way around it.

Timeline 3But here is the thing about linear time, in a universe with only a single timeline, every decision that is ever made, has ever been made, will ever be made, is already certain. That may seem like a bit of a leap, but think about it this way. Your present is someone else’s past (let’s call her Amber), and someone else’s future (who will be known as Zoe). To Amber, the time at which you are reading this article is the future, and seems uncertain and full of possibilities. But, from Zoe’s perspective, the events of the past are set in stone, immutable and measurable. The “truth” of these events could be obscured, but the events themselves happened the way that they happened. And Zoe’s present is someone else’s past, and so on and so on. In this case, the act of time traveling is moving up or down along this single line and the actions that take place there have happened, are happening, and did happen, already.

Some authors and movie makers get this right. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for instance, Harry and Hermione end up going back in time a few hours to save Harry’s godfather. During the first time through these three hours, a few mysterious things happen. Rocks fly through Hagrid’s window, alerting the teen wizards of the Minister’s approach. Later, a howl in the distance distracts the werewolf that is attacking them, thus leading it out into the forest and saving the kids. When Harry and Hermione go back and revisit these events, Hermione realizes that it must of been she who threw the rocks and made the howling sound. She acts because she knows that she has already acted. Another series that does a lot with teleportation and time travel and handles it brilliantly are the “Dragonriders of Pern” books by mother and son team, Ann and Todd McCaffrey. If you have never read these books and are looking for a world that straddles fantasy and science fiction to fall into, I highly recommend them.

To Infinity, and Beyond!

multiversetheoryThe other side of this cosmic coin is the idea that there is one timeline for every choice made by every person who has ever lived, because reality splits based on these untraveled roads. There is world where you had strawberry jam on your toast this morning, and another where you had grape jelly. If that sounds daunting, keep this in mind: people are not special. If we follow this idea to its logical extension then there has to be a new branch of existence for decisions made by the human race, then there must one for every dog, fish, amoeba, and atom that makes up the known (and unknown) universe.

So let’s bring our time traveler into this scenario. He travels back in time, or he doesn’t. He makes it to the right time, or he doesn’t. He eats a cheese sandwich, or he doesn’t. While choking on the cheese sandwich he steps on a man’s foot, or he doesn’t. This man is his grandfather, or he isn’t. The man is angry, or he isn’t. They draw pistols at dawn, or they don’t. The time traveler kills his grandfather, or he doesn’t. Not to mention what anyone is wearing that day, whether they put on after shave, kissed their kids goodbye, or put on their pants starting with the left or the right.

For the sake of stories, people don’t generally roll with this notion to the extent that I just demonstrated, because it gets confusing and weird and bogged down in details about pants. Some people only focus life-changing events or big decisions, such as where to go to college or missing the train where you would have met the love of your life. They figure the stuff about pants will probably work itself out, and amounts to very little in the grand scheme of things, and they are probably right. It mattered very little what I was wearing or what I had for breakfast the day that my husband’s eyes met mine across the crowded lecture hall, but the fact that I signed up for a class so far outside my major made all the difference.

But, let us return to our time traveler. We can’t totally abandon everything in the multi-verse, because some choices DO make a big impact. In the case of the traveler, the fact that he traveled through time at all is a huge deal. It seems safe to assume that ripping the fabric of space and time asunder would be enough to create a new branch of the timeline. Next, killing grandpa (let’s call him Mr. Smith) would definitely count as a big deal, at which point time would bifurcate again. Aright, so in this one branch of time where the traveler went into the past Mr. Smith is dead. But, this is still linear time we are talking about here and the split between time travel and no time travel occurred AFTER the events in Mr. Smith’s day, so the time traveler would be safe from disappearing. Instead, there would be a whole new branch of time that snapped into existence to reflect the absence of Mr. Smith.

3103879_700bSo, the time traveler will not blink out of existence. In fact, even if he went back to when the most advanced creature on the planet was a reptile and killed them all, he would still exist in the multi-verse. The biggest issue, then, becomes picking out the right timeline to land in after the trip is over.

Back to the Present

Please do not mistake these ruminations for lack of love or respect for time travel tales. I enjoy them precisely because they make me think about things like this. The idea of visiting another timeline where the choices were all different is an exciting train of thought, and exploring these meanderings through time in stories is a unique way to navigate an examination of the human condition. In a way, traveling into the distant future is a way to cheat death. Traveling into the past allows an opportunity to see our roots and find out more about what brought us here in the first place. We experience the present so clearly, looking for a way to bring the past or future into such focus is not just understandable, but laudable.

I mentioned it in Part 1 of this article, but for people interested in time travel, I cannot recommend The Time Traveler’s Almanac enough. It is an incredible collection that spans over a century of the best short stories around.

Until next time…

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

How to Punk Your Steam Part 10.2: Make it Travel Through Time (Rewind)

Hindsight being 20/20 and all, I am sure there has been some time in your life when you wished your older and wiser self could travel back in time and warn your younger self to avoid a or just to give encouragement that things will eventually look up. As grown-ups, we know that the drama of high school quickly falls away after graduation, and that college life undergoes the same treatment within a few years of moving into the working world. But, in our limited conception of time we are always going to see what is in front of us as the sharpest, strongest, most important thing that is happening and will happen.

My personal time travel wish isn’t much. If I could, I would take a peek at my future just 6 months from now. By then, I will know where my husband accepts a job, where we will be moving off to next, if I was accepted to any MFA programs, and/or if we are really going to embark on this whole being a parent thing I keep hearing so much about. Of course, as we discussed last time, I will get there eventually no matter what I do, because we are always traveling into the future. The tricky part would be getting back to “now” after I took my peek.

Backing Up

Moving forward in time is supported by scientific experimentation and pretty straightforward math (by professional mathematician standards anyway), but going in reverse is a lot trickier. Once again, much of this article is adapted from an essay by Stan Love, who tells his readers that he learned most of what he knows about traveling backward in time from Kip Thorne, so if you want all the details, check out Thorne’s book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. 

There are actually several theoretical methods for creating a time machine, there just hasn’t been any way to test it. And there likely won’t be any way to test it for hundreds, if not thousands of years. But, waiting is no fun, and a good imagination is great replacement for hard facts, so let’s move on to the theories. Now, bear with me, I am not a physicist nor a mathematician, but this is all weird and wonderful food for thought.

One theory involves an infinitely long cylinder. We are not just talking about the width of the known universe here, this would be infinity. Apparently, physics allows that if this cylinder existed, and was turning at nearly the speed of light, then vehicles moving through it would be able to make specific flight paths to the location they left, but at an earlier time. The best part? We may not even have to build this infinite cylinder ourselves. There is room within our current understanding of physics for a naturally occurring structure with these properties to already exist. It is a “linear black hole”, also known as a cosmic string.


This is not to be confused with a wormhole, which would be a tunnel created by the connection of two black holes. In general, this theoretical mode of travel (also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge) is most often associated with moving faster than light speed over great distances, it is also related to time travel. In General Relativity, Einstein shows that space and time are two aspects of the same thing. You cannot mess with one without influencing the other. So, an astronaut traveling through a wormhole that is essentially warping space, will also experience a shift in time as well. If one could manipulate the wormhole to pick you up and spit you out relatively close in space (think like a big C shape with the earth being embraced by the arms), then you return to Earth, you could theoretically travel back (or forward) in time. The catch? You can’t ever travel back farther in time that when the wormhole was established, because you need an end to come out of. But, people living far enough into the future could take a jaunt back to meet their great-great-greats.

Alright, so we have a couple theories that involve black holes, which do exist. But, there is that whole spagettifcation problem that came up last time. Black holes are made of incredibly destructive forces that pull things apart atom by atom, so even if a wormhole existed and we could make it point where we wanted, how would we survive the trip? Black holes are extremely unstable, and any tunnel created by joining two of them would be likely to collapse at any moment. We would need to use something that is emptier than a vacuum and lighter than nothing to counteract the effects of the gravity well. Sound impossible? Nope.

casimir-effect-overviewThrough something called the Casimir effect, it is actually possible to create negative pressure. There is a long explanation that has to do with making photons do weird things between materials that are poor conductors, but just take my word for it. If one were to construct two spheres, one inside of the other, out of these poorly conducting materials, and trap photons between the two layers, the photons outside the spheres would cause this negative pressure to occur. Granted, it has only been measured in extremely tiny increments, BUT, it has been measured.

But, as I said, hard science can only take us so far. The implications and intellectual appeal of time travel has very little to do with physics in the end. So, for the final installment of this How to Punk Your Steam article, I will be looking at time travel paradoxes and how to resolve them.

Part 1: Fast Forward


How to Punk Your Steam Part 10.1: Make it Travel Through Time (Fast Forward)

Do you remember the first time you had a crush? Well, how about an author-crush? That’s what I call it when I find an author whose work I enjoy so much that I feel compelled to read his or her entire collected works. In recent years, this has included Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, but it all started with Kurt Vonnegut. I vividly remember the experience of reading Slaughterhouse 5 in high school, and within a year I had read every one of his 14 novels. Not only was Slaughterhouse 5 a gateway to science fiction in general and Vonnegut specifically, but it was my first exposure to time travel in literature.

SH5In Vonnegut’s story, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time.” He does not travel to the far flung past nor the distant future. Instead, he is able to travel along his own timeline, from birth to death, and is doomed to do so forever. For the reader, the story takes one through different events in his life, but not in a linear fashion, and he always returns to the same experience. He and his platoon were trapped in a slaughterhouse during the bombing of Dresden in WWII (like Vonnegut himself), and he finds himself reliving this trauma over and over again. Pilgrim makes these journeys within his own body, he is not watching the events of his life unfold from outside himself. Rather, he re-visits scenes from his life but is powerless to change them.

rod-taylor-time-machine (1)When a person mentions time travel, this is not what usually comes to mind. Generally, we think of a person climbing into a contraption such as the one in H. G. Wells‘ classic The Time Machine and riding their way through time, their own body unchanged. This may happen purely out of curiosity, but as often as not the goal is to avert a disaster. In some earlier installments of this series I discussed alternate histories and making your story futuristic, so it might seem like there isn’t anything left to say about time. I may have discussed the past and the future, but that still leaves us with the mechanics of time travel.

For my birthday in 2013, I received an incredible collection of short stories called The Time Traveler’s Almanac. This tome, numbering a whopping 948 pages, was edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (of The Steampunk Bible fame), and contains the best of the best when it comes to time travel fiction. In addition to tales written by notables such as Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov, there are very interesting essays that divide the sections. The information in this article is largely adapted from “Time Travel in Theory and Practice” by Stan Love.

Moving Forward

We are all traveling through time, it is simply in one direction at a uniform speed of 3600 seconds per hour. This doesn’t sound nearly as fun as it is to imagine a quick jaunt to the Jurassic or popping over to 2300 for a cup of hydroponic super coffee. This is the stuff the imagination, of science fiction. But, hard science does offer some interesting tidbits about what we could expect from time travel with the knowledge we already have.

a2435a1c-cb94-490c-c15f-0ac7c7e61ab1Albert Einstein offers us two theories concerning traveling forward through time, a General one and a Special one. General Relativity has to do with the interaction between extremely massive objects and smaller ones that are trying to escape their gravitational pull. Now, assuming that your ship can move at just barely slower than the speed of light, and you are trying to get away from say, a black hole or a neutron star, time acts really funny. Inside the ship, time will slow down, at least as it appears to an outside observer. If you get too close, the tidal forces of the black hole will tear you apart. The side of the ship facing the gravitational force would experience a stronger pull than the other side, and stretch away from the other side of the ship, causing the whole thing to elongate. This phenomenon has the delightful name of “spagettification” or “the noodle effect.” The side closer to the gravitation force will also experience time slightly differently (due to gravitational time dilation) than the side that is farther away, and both of these are different than what the outside observer experiences.


When I learned about Special Relativity, I was in a delightful class with the nickname of “Physics for Poets” (the more lyrical counterpart to “Rocks for Jocks”). My professor was a long-since tenured, adorable old man who wrote and illustrated his own text book, which meant stick figures and rudimentary rockets. He explained the classic Twin Paradox of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe (and later their sister Roe, but we only need the first two for this theory). This thought experiment has been part of the discussion of physics since the early 1900s, and will remain a thought experiment until we are able to travel at near light-speed.

Alright, so there are twins named Moe and Joe. Moe gets into a rocket ship, and Joe stays behind on Earth. As Moe’s rocket approaches near light-speed, Joe checks in with a telescope. Moe will appear to be moving in slow motion from Joe’s outside vantage point. Moe’s clock will tick at a slower rate than Joe’s, and the wavelengths of the light source in her rocket will shift toward the red end of the spectrum (because they are being made longer through the noodle effect). When Moe returns to Earth, she will have experienced a fraction of the Earth-time that Joe did, and so Joe will be older.  There is a lot of math and experimentation with super small objects to back this up, and you are welcome to explore that further on your own if you are really into facts and figures, but the stick figures and kindly old professor was good enough for me.

So, in theory it is totally possible to move quickly into the future, but so far we haven’t come even close to reaching the speed required to try it out with a human being. A person would have to get up to about 300,000 km/second in order to do this, and so far we have not discovered an energy source capable of generating this much energy. And frankly, if we did, I doubt we would use it to hurtle someone into the future. Because, like I said, we are already moving into the future all the time.

Later this week, we will take a look at the scientific implications of moving backwards through time, so stay tuned for part 10.2 of the How to Punk Your Steam series.

How to Punk Your Steam Part 9.1: Make it Scary

On display at the Museum of London

On display at the Museum of London

The world is a much safer place now than it ever was for our ancestors, and yet studies show that modern day people are extremely fearful. Despite the lack of wild beasties waiting to pounce, the taming of most diseases, and the relative comfort we enjoy, we are afraid. In a large part, this is due to the media and the way it over-reports tragedy in exchange for higher ratings. This is not a new phenomenon, but because of our unprecedented access to news sources on account of television and the internet, the problem has continued to grow. Likewise, it was not at all uncommon during the Steam era for newspapers and periodicals to do exactly the same thing to their readers, and the general public could be whipped into a frenzy by a few carefully chosen words. One famous example of this is the media hoopla over Jack the Ripper, but there were other stories that got blown up and disseminated by the media and word of mouth.

Urban Legends

  1. Spring-heeled Jack. He was first sighted in 1837 in London, and people claimed to have seen this strange figure for at least a decade to come. He supposedly attacked young women, breathed fire and could leap over tall fences in a single bound. Read more
  2. Animals in the Sewers. Rumors of alligators in New York City’s sewers still persist to this day, but did you know this wasn’t the only city supposedly overrun with subterranean inhabitants? London was apparently infested with “The Black Sewer Swine of Hampstead.” Rumors of these little piggies ensued for years, and were even mentioned in an article in the Daily Telegraph in 1859. If given the choice, I am sure we’d all rather meet a pig in the sewer than a gator.
  3. Visions of Crises. It was not uncommon for a person to report that they had received a vision of a tragedy as it occurred even if they were in another part of the city. The newspapers would print their accounts of unaccountable panic and sightings of apparitions, and the public would eat it up.
  4. Doppelgangers. What if there was someone out there who looked and sounded just like you, but were bent on your destruction? This was a real fear for 19th century Londoners, who would give accounts of chasing themselves through the streets or blaming their double for their own wrong-doing.
  5. “New Humans.” After Charles Darwin’s treatise was released, many people began to believe in (and fear) the next step in human evolution. Some believed that humans and animals could be combined to make frightening creatures, such as the ones who populated The Island of Doctor Moreau. 
  6. Death by Garroting. In 1862, a man named Hugh Pilkington was strangled during a mugging on his way home one night. Soon, the story grew into a fervor as people feared a band of men roaming the streets and killing people at will.
  7. Big Cats (or Dogs) Roaming the Countryside. Starting in the middle of the 1800’s, people began reporting sightings of large, black predators. Some described something like a black panther, while others reported seeing a huge black dog. The latter tales inspired the Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

As you can see, the supernatural only comes to play in a few of these examples. There were lots of things that people feared that were rooted in the mundane or in science (at least, science as they understood it then) and this made them susceptible to exaggeration by the media.

1874maneating_thumbThere were pranksters who played on these fears, as well as the media’s willingness to disseminate them, who helped to fan the flames as well. For instance, Mark Twain successfully hid a critique of utility companies in a story of murder and mayhem in 1863. A fiction by reporter Edmund Spencer about a man-eating tree in Madagascar circulated for years before it was revealed as a hoax. In 1874, residents of New York panicked as they read an account of zoo animals escaping and running rampant across the city, but the fine print at the bottom revealed it to be completely fabricated. The author, Thomas Connery, wrote the article to bring attention to the appalling conditions of zoo animals. If you are interested in reading about more hoaxes, you should check out the website for the Museum of Hoaxes.

There are many urban legends that I learned as a child or teen that are utterly false. For instance, “Daddy Longlegs” spiders are not extremely venomous, a tooth will not dissolve in a glass of Coke, and there is no man with a hook for a hand waiting to attack teenagers on date night. Yet, these stories persist. One can only conclude that humans like to be scared, disturbed and titillated by these types of strange tales, and this was no different in the past. Steampunk works can play on the fears that were actually reported, but there is ample space to create a new horror and support it by the same means as the Victorian-era pranksters. Rumor mills and the media spread fear better than any other means, and our capacity to believe these stories in the absence or proof, or even in the presence of proof to the contrary, is a testament to how much we delight in fright.

How to Punk Your Steam Part 8.2: Make it Supernatural (Prove it!)

In yesterday’s post I talked about the cultural and intellectual climate that made a resurgence in the belief in the supernatural possible during the 19th century. But believing isn’t everything. In fact, seeing isn’t always believing either. In the face of the rising claims of communications with ghosts and sightings of storybook creatures, people often turned to hard science. Or at least as hard a science as they could manage in a time when blood-letting was still a common cure for various illnesses.

The Vocabulary

By a funny coincidence, I find myself surrounded by books about the paranormal right now. My landlord is a statistician who crunches numbers for parapsychology studies, and I am using her office as my studio. When I am staring off into space, my eyes often come to rest on titles such as The Medium, The Mystic and the Physicist, The Encylopedia of the Paranormal and Natural ESP. People today often use terms like supernatural and paranormal interchangeably, but that isn’t exactly correct. So what is the difference? I found a great article that summarizes the difference between the first two terms very well:

The realm of the paranormal includes things that we might one day understand, and be able to duplicate in a scientific study or setting and figure out just how they work—once we catch up to them. That includes things like faith healing, telepathy and telekinesis, and clairvoyance. There’s also the field of cryptozoology: One day, Bigfoot might make the jump from paranormal to fact, much like the giant panda, the giant squid, the giraffe, and the okapi once did.

Supernatural things, on the other hand, we will never have a way to document simply because they don’t play by the same rules we do. We’ll never have a way to scientifically observe a god, a guardian angel, or a soul. We’re not going to be able to repeat a miracle in a laboratory. The supernatural is beyond our capabilities of understanding and is instead in the realm of the divine or otherworldly.

It seems pretty clear laid out like that. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a lot of people trying to bring supernatural things into the realm of scientific explanation, ie, the paranormal. So its not surprising that there is conflict about the terminology and its correct application even today.

To confuse matters, there is also Theosophy, or the science of the occult. This is a subject fit for its own article at some point in the future, but in brief theosophy in the 19th century was a movement that promoted the elevation of the human being through a deep connection to the Divine (which may be called Nature). It was basically the idea that people could evolve into higher beings through their study of and tapping into some higher power. This could be the god of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage or some other divine entity.

But for now, let’s concentrate on the interplay between supernatural and paranormal, and the means of converting to unknowable into the knowable.

Photographic Proof

The word “photography,” which roughly means “light-writing”, was coined in 1839 by chemist and inventor Sir John Herschel. There were some cameras prior to this year, like the camera obscura, but 1839 saw the birth of many photographic techniques that were employed throughout the century. In this same year, Louis Daguerre introduced the “dagguerrotype” method of photography, which did not require the hours of exposure necessary for a camera obscura. It can be hard to get those pesky pixies to stay still for long, so these advancements made it possible for the first time to claim photographic proof, and so objective “scientific” proof, of the supernatural.

ectoplasmWithin a few decades of photography’s commercial success, “spirit photographers” emerged. They took photos during seances and documented the presence of ghosts, as well as the ectoplasm the mediums often exuded during spiritual encounters. Mediums would pull this spirit goo (which bore a striking resemblance to cheese cloth) out of all kinds of orifices (and I do mean all) to show a physical manifestation of contact with the beyond. The “ghosts” were sometimes mannequins the mediums worked with a pulley, or were created by the photographer during development.

Headless Portraits From the 19th Century (1)

Though they may not have had Photoshop in the steam era, they certainly had trick photography. It didn’t take long for people to realize that they could alter negatives and combine multiple photographs to create false images that looked totally real. I know it looks like those stone-faced urchins above gave their mama forty whacks, but headless portraiture was all the rage. Below are a few more of my faves, and you can find even more here.


One of Mumler’s most famous photos. The sitter is Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s wife. Supposedly, Mumler did not know the identity of the sitter when he developed the film.

And spirit photography was no different. Through double exposures, photographers could create semi-transparent beings looming over the shoulders of their subjects and create the illusion of an other-worldly visitor. The first of this particular brand of frauds was William H. Mumler and he was active in the 1860s. His first spirit photograph was actually a self-portrait, and his deceased cousin appeared to be standing behind him. At the time, none of the “experts” could prove that it was a fake and he went on to experience great success for a time. This was due in a large part to the grieving families who had lost loved ones during the American Civil War who wished to see their fallen sons and husbands one last time. Mumler reported broke into the homes of the grieving in order to steal likeness of the relatives he was supposed to be photographing. But his biggest misstep was when some of his “spirits” were recognized as living people. He was taken to court in 1869, and though he was never found guilty, he left the spirit photography business afterwards.

The Society for Psychical Research (London)

In 1882, a group of researchers came together to study phenomena such as mesmerism, mediums, and reports of hauntings. Their goal was to objectively approach various claims about the supernatural world and study them through observation, experimentation and sometimes duplication of these phenomena. There were several different committees that were dedicated to studying different aspects and claims. A similar group was formed in Boston in 1884, but became a branch of the London society after some financial problems.

Many famous mediums were debunked during the 1880s by this group, which led to turmoil among its members. When an SPR member, William Davey, began offering seances and then explaining the techniques he had used to deceive the sitters, it caused quite a stir. Led by Arthur Conan Doyle, 84 people resigned in 1893 because they said the SPR was hostile to Spiritualism rather than remaining objective as their mission claimed. The Spiritualists went off and created their own societies, and the SPR went on with their research convinced that while some things like mesmerism, clairvoyance and telekinesis had credence, communicating with the dead did not.

So Where Does that Leave the Supernatural?

If we adhere to the definitions above, none of the hoaxes or trickery have any bearing whatsoever. The supernatural can’t be explained, and any attempts to test it has led to controversy and debate. So despite all the frauds, there is still room for bit of the unknowable in works about the era. No researcher yet has cracked the code and discovered unequivocally that the human soul does or does not exist. Maybe our relatives really are hanging around in the aether, waiting for us to glimpse them in a photograph, we just haven’t figured out how to do it yet. What we know for sure is that superstitions abounded and people were easily swayed by “evidence.”

For my next installment of the How to Punk Your Steam series, I will continue our exploration of the creatures and legends that nightmares are made of.

And make sure to tune in for the whole month of October for spooky Halloween fun!

How to Punk Your Steam Part 8.1: Make it Supernatural

Steampunk isn’t just about crazy technology and altering history, there is an undeniable supernatural element to many works as well, and for a very good reason. The Victorian era, as well as the period immediately before, saw a rise in belief in the supernatural. I’ve discussed the Spiritualist Movement with its ghosts and mediums in another post, but people of this time were also concerned about fairies, vampires, werewolves and other frightful figures. Why, in the face of technological advancement and rationalism, did this resurgence occur? And how can authors, makers and gamers use this historical fact to their advantage?

Rational vs. Rationale

The Industrial Revolution saw the rise of many dichotomies that somehow managed to live side by side. Though it may seem strange to us in our own time when we can get information on anything we want by poking a little box we carry in our pocket, during the 19th century science itself was akin to magic. There were many advancements that worked, but people did not yet understand the how or why, only the results. For instance, improving sanitation in a city could reduce the effects of cholera, and people believed that it was because plumbing cut down on bad smells rather than contagion by germs. Electricity brought light into their homes, but the average person couldn’t tell you why that collection of glass and wires could outshine a candle. (And honestly, I would be hard pressed to explain exactly how a telephone works myself!) In other words, people were willing to accept things that they could not explain.

Another symptom of this era was a challenge to mainstream religious beliefs. Many felt that in Charles Darwin’s 1859 treatise, The Origin of the Species, he had effectively killed God. By replacing God’s will (and whim) with scientific principles and data, it shook the foundations of the Christian faith, which dictated that it was God alone who controlled the course of nature. Charlotte Barrett put it this way, “The insertion of humans beings into this biological continuum meant that, for Darwin, humans were part of nature rather than above it.” Darwin was aware of how revolutionary his theories were, which is why he had originally planned to wait until after his death to publish them.


One might assume that this would be the perfect precursor to pave the way to a totally rational public, but people are far more complicated than that. Though many may have felt that the answers did not lie in words from the pulpit, there were still things that could not yet be explained by science. This left a gap between their experiences and their frameworks, and opened their minds to alternative possibilities. The fantastical, pagan figures of myth held great appeal for people floundering in the face of religious upheaval.

Books Tell us More than Stories

The literary audience of the steam era had a voracious appetite, and it was not uncommon for them to turn to compilations of “fairy stories” to feed their fervor. Collections such as the Grimm Brother’s Children and Household Tales were being read in nurseries throughout Western Europe. In addition to texts, this time period also saw an exodus as people moved away from the countryside seeking work in the cities, and they often brought their superstitions with them. So through both written and oral traditions, audiences of all ages were being titillated by the strange creatures that inhabited the frightening forest, a place all to familiar to rural peasants but far less commonplace to an Industrialized society. Ironically, the reason for collecting these fantastical stories was often rooted in exposing the ignorance and backwardness of peasants, and yet they took hold of the imagination of the working class years later.

The Fairy Festival Gustave Dore

Though Industrialization may appear at first to be antithetical to belief in fairies, this antithesis itself was a driving factor in their resurgence. London was not the only place where factories were built. In fact, factories began springing up all over the English countryside. Old maladies and new continued to persist, and some people blamed their problems on the factories driving away the fairies and their protection.

Carl_Larsson_-_Little_Red_Riding_Hood_1881The use of fairy stories as morality tales also goes a long way toward explaining why they remained popular despite losing contact with their roots in the country. My freshman year of college my “Twice Told Tales” class spent half of a semester analyzing Little Red Riding Hood. It turns out it isn’t just a simple story of a little girl who gets lost in the woods, but serves a metaphor for womanhood, sexual transgressions, and the fear of strangers (ie immigrants). Stories were not (and are not) just a form of entertainment, but of indoctrination. This and other tales also evolved over time, and different authors used its framework to promote their own agendas. For instance, in the original Little Red Cape, she dies at the end. There is no heroic woodcutter, the wolf eats the grandma and the little girl up and lives happily ever after, ergo the fear of the dark stranger. Cinderella is propaganda geared towards women who want to better their lots in life (please the right man and all your dreams will come true), Rumplestiltskin tells children to work hard or suffer the consequences, and Rapunzel ends up in her tower because her father was a thief.

But not everyone was taken in by just the stories, they wanted proof of the supernatural. And as that master of the fantastic, J. R. R. Tolkien tells us, “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Check out Part 2 of this post tomorrow for information about the ways that people strove to prove and disprove the supernatural.

You can also read the rest of the How to Punk Your Steam series.

How to Punk Your Steam Part 7.3: Make ’em Laugh (Some More)

Writing comedy doesn’t come easily to everyone, but here is some food for thought based on a comedic trope dating from the vaudeville era. (Don’t miss Part 1 and Part 2!)

Let’s Get Something Straight

More than likely, the comedy you will want to work into your Steampunk work will be in the form of dialogue. The tried and true method for these interactions is to have one “clown” and one “straight man” (or woman). The various antics of the clown are augmented by the straight man’s reactions, which can range from total serious detachment to anger. Your combo could be a servant/master, a hero/sidekick, siblings, husband and wife or any other combination of two people you want. The straight man’s job is most often to represent society at large, while the clown (also called “the banana man” or “comedian”) is there to transgress it.

The moniker “clown” may put you in mind of a buffoon, but this half of the duo doesn’t necessarily need to stupid or slow. I saw a great example of this dynamic in a steampunkish setting at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There is a fantastic magical act called Morgan and West, and while both men performed amazing acts of prestidigitation, one is clearly acting as the straight man. Here is an example:

Usually, it’s the clown who gets all the laughs, but not always. In Jeeves and Wooster, for instance, it is usually Jeeves (Stephen Fry) who uses his droll delivery to elicit the chuckles while his charge Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie) bumbles through life and occasionally sings a silly song. Wooster is definitely the clown in the pair, but is not funnier than the straight man.

You also don’t need to commit to an arrangement for the duration of a whole novel if you don’t want. Characters have moods and circumstances change, so your duo may not be in comedic place in the story every step of the way. Your clowns can also be fleeting members of your cast of characters. In the book I am writing, I realized I have a few different “clowns” who interact with various members of my core group of characters so they serve the purpose of a foil, but I also don’t have to keep them around any longer than I need to for their primary purpose (exposition, lightening the mood, etc). Take the excerpt below, for example. I’d love to get some feedback on this bit of dialogue 🙂 Olivia is one of my POV characters, and Tina is her cousin.

“Well, then you will have plenty of time to play with me before you leave me behind, alone, to fend for myself,” Tina put on a theatrical pout and placed her hand daintily to her forehead in mock despair for a moment before she laughed.

“Oh come,” said Olivia, “We both know I will have to be here at the Mews all the time anyway.” A new servant brought out the silver tea service that flashed in the sunlight that broke through the leaves. She was followed by another with an array of delicate nibbles that were artfully displayed on a four-tiered server. “Really, it was all I could do to convince Uncle that I should be moving out at all.”

“Why yes,” said Tina as she reached for a meringue, “he may have to resort to holding a gala every night. Tragic really.” Her eyes twinkled with possibilities.

“Oh please don’t suggest it! My feet and my dressmakers can hardly keep up as it is.”

“Then I suppose it’s a good thing you are going.” Tina popped the tart into her mouth and continued with her mouth full. “Imagine the scandal if your feet fell off during a party. Uncle would never live it down.”

Olivia smiled and added two lumps of sugar that came to a tinkling stop in her empty porcelain cup. “Unfortunately for the rest of you, someone would probably declare it the newest trend and you would all be expected to cut yours off, too.”

“Fashion is fickle, I’ll give you that.” Tina poured the tea. “So, speaking of scandal, we didn’t get a chance to talk last night after your rendezvous. I’ve been dying to know what happened.” Olivia looked around briefly alarmed but the servants had totally vacated the garden now so there was no one to overhear. “What, them? They wouldn’t say anything even they did hear.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“I’ve been getting you in to trouble for years and not one of your staff has ever tattled on us,” Tina scoffed. “What’s different now?” She peered at Olivia over the brim of her cup as she blew the steam off.

“I don’t know. Maybe because the stakes are higher than a broken cookie jar?”

“When you’re six the stakes don’t get much higher,” Tina pointed out.

The scene goes on for several more pages, but after this encounter the readers won’t see Tina again (at least not in book 1). I try to use her first as a foil for Olivia (whom the reader has only just met) and later to facilitate exposition, but I don’t have to make a commitment to her as a character for the duration.

And of course, you don’t have to use this method. Characters could riff off each other just as easily as they can act as foils. There must be some reason these people are spending time together, and it probably has something to do with feeling the other has a good sense of humor. I asked the Mister who he thought was funnier out of the two of us, and he said it was probably me, but so often we are playing off one another it is difficult to really make that judgment call. I’ll leave you here at the end of Part 3 of this How to Punk Your Steam article with a re-creation of a real conversation we had the other day when we sighted longhorn sheep in the Badlands, but come back next time for some recommendations for funny Steampunk books, movies and television shows.


Him: It looks like the sheep are all leaving. I guess they are sick of getting their picture taken.
Me: You’d think they’d be “ewe-sed” to it by now, wouldn’t you?
Him: Perhaps they are on the “lamb.”
Me: They could just be feeling “sheepish.” Or they’ve had enough they are collectively throwing up their hooves and saying “baa-humbug.”
Him: That really gets my goat.
Me: I bet they “herd” us coming.
Him: Don’t worry, they’ll be back. They are just “kid-ding” around.
Me: Oof, that one was “baaaaad.”

Read Part 1 and Part 2, and Part 4 of this post

Check out more ways to “Punk Your Steam